- Rated R
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All photos © Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
t’s been six years since Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ directorial debut “Little Miss Sunshine” captured the attention of moviegoers everywhere, so it's not surprising that people were beginning to worry whether the filmmaking duo might just be another one-hit wonder. The dreaded second album syndrome is something that haunts artists working in any medium, so it’s curious that Dayton and Faris decided to approach the subject head-on by making a film about that very thing. Though it's only inevitable that "Ruby Sparks" is going to be compared to their Sundance hit, the movie is a clever but flawed Woody Allen-esque comedy that deserves to be judged on its own merits.
Paul Dano stars as Calvin Weir-Fields, a literary wunderkind who wrote his first novel at the age of 19, but has failed to deliver a proper follow-up since. Under immense pressure to match what many consider to be a modern classic, Calvin is suffering from a serious case of writer’s block. When his therapist (Elliot Gould) gives him a writing assignment in the hopes that it will gets his creative juices flowing again, Calvin starts writing a story about a fantasy girl named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), only to be rendered speechless when she appears one day in his apartment. Though he refuses to believe she’s anything more than a figment of his imagination, Calvin is ecstatic to discover that Ruby is a real-life person. Additionally, anything he writes about her comes true – a power that his brother Harry (Chris Messina) implores him not to waste. But when Ruby begins to develop a personality of her own, Calvin struggles with the moral implications of interfering to preserve her the way that he originally imagined.
Though it may seem a bit presumptuous of Zoe Kazan to write the movie with herself and long-time boyfriend Paul Dano in mind for the lead roles, it’s evident pretty early on that the two actors have great chemistry, so why not take advantage of that? Dano, in particular, continues to impress in his second outing with Dayton and Faris, delivering another great performance in a role that John Cusack would have played 20 years ago. Kazan and Chris Messina are also good as the title character and Calvin’s counseling brother, respectively, but the rest of the supporting cast is wasted – especially Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, who pop up in the second act never to be seen again.
Of course, Kazan deserves more kudos for her debut screenplay than her work in front of the camera, creating a smart, charming and mostly original story that doesn’t always go in the direction you expect. It does share some similarities with movies like “Weird Science” and “Stranger than Fiction,” but at its core, it’s essentially just a clever variation on the classic Pygmalion myth – something that Charlie Kaufman might have written, only without all the confusing twists. And although the magic of Ruby’s existence is never really explained, it’s better off that way, in order to protect the fantastical nature of the premise. "Ruby Sparks" didn't exactly wow me like Dayton and Faris' first effort, but it's a welcome break from all the big blockbusters, and the perfect summer date movie.
Single-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Fox’s Blu-ray release of “Ruby Sparks” is a pretty disappointing affair. Although the bonus material includes five featurettes on a variety of topics like the story, the cast and filming in Los Angeles – they're so brief that it feels like little more than an afterthought.